Kaika fumed with rage as she burst into the room. “What’s the meaning of this!?” Her delicate features twisted in fury, blood gathering under her pale cheeks.
Ageha was in bed, with a number of tubes protruding from his neck. Beside him sat Saya, showing a rare expression of surprise.
“What happened, Ojousama?”
“Ria is alive.”
Saya’s jaw fell slack. “T-That can’t be…”
“I can’t say I didn’t suspect it. The Russian mafia in Japan didn’t fall into disarray after Ria’s defeat, so I sent people to investigate. One of them managed to tap into a conversation between Viktor and one of his men. He did good work uploading the information before getting killed.”
“But she was shot in the chest!”
“I know. She’s in really bad shape, but unfortunately for us, still breathing.”
Contrary to Kaika’s expectation, Ageha did not seem fazed by the news at all. He did not even turn his head to look at her, almost as if he knew about Valeriya’s survival beforehand.
“…Don’t tell me you let her live on purpose?”
Ageha kept his eyes on the ceiling of the recovery room. “I didn’t.”
His apathetic attitude and tone angered Kaika even more. She marched to the bed and scowled at his bored-looking face. He had been dispirited since the battle against Valeriya. Kaika understood his feelings to an extent. After the operation, Arashi ran off when Ageha collapsed on the way to the rendezvous point. Not even Kaika’s information network could find her.
Ageha’s report about the battle had been vague, but Kaika had not forced him to talk about it due to the extent of his injuries. However, two weeks had passed. Her patience finally reached its limit.
“Then why is she alive!?” Kaika slammed her hands on the bed.
“I’m… not sure.”
Something snapped within Kaika upon hearing such a lazy answer. The stress from Arashi’s disappearance had taken a toll on her. Ageha’s miserable state pushed her over the edge.
“You incompetent fool! Do you even realize what you’ve done!? Killing Mitsuki while sparing Ria is the worst possible outcome! You of all people know how dangerous that woman is! We don’t even know where she disappeared to!”
Saya stood up and gently held Kaika’s shoulders. “Please calm down, Ojousama. Ageha is not playing dumb-”
“Then what the hell is he doing!? He’s been moping in bed for days. Look at him! He doesn’t even care that we’re going to be in grave danger when Ria recovers!” Kaika narrowed her eyes at Ageha. “Arashi ran away because of your screw up, and now this negligence! Are you even trying, you useless-”
Saya rotated Kaika to face her and slapped her cheek. The motion was so quick and fluid it barely registered until the stinging pain brought Kaika back to her senses.
“Get a hold of yourself, Ojousama.” Saya’s gaze felt frigid, colder than any she had ever directed to her mistress. “You know Ageha is suffering from mild amnesia due to multiple concussions.”
Kaika gulped down. Her saliva felt like a jagged rock squeezing down her throat.
I know about that.
Why did I assume the worst without thinking it through?
When did I become so irrational?
That mistake made her fully realize how much Arashi’s disappearance had been affecting her. She had not been herself since that night. However, that epiphany was not what hit her the hardest. It was realizing how much worse Ageha must feel compared to her that gouged out her heart. Kaika grabbed at her chest as breathing became a painful chore. She supported herself by placing a hand on the bed.
Mitsuki had been like a younger sister to Ageha. She might have even reminded him of Kureha, the eternal thorn lodged in his heart. And he had killed her with his own hands. Kaika, who was rather new to human emotions, had been so preoccupied with her own emotional turmoil that she had not seen this simple fact.
Ageha had not been dispirited.
He had been crushed.
And she had heaped even more agonizing pressure on him just seconds ago.
“I’m so sorry…” The words slowly trickled from her lips. She was so appalled by her own stupidity she could not even hang her head.
“…It’s okay.” Ageha gently placed his hand on her shoulder. “I deserve it.”
“Not at all! I was just being irrational and-”
“About Ria’s survival… I don’t remember everything, but I do know she was shot in the chest by an unknown sniper. It was a lethal wound, or so I thought. Guess I underestimated her again. When will I ever learn?” He chuckled with a self-derisive smile plastered on his face.
His words flew like lances, impaling Kaika’s chest. She cared for Ageha, even loved him. Yet instead of helping him in his time of need, she had assisted him on his self-destructive guilt trip by pounding on his beaten heart some more.
Despite feeling she had no right to, Kaika tenderly grasped the hand on her shoulder. “What can I do?”
Even so, she tightened her grip on his unyielding alloy hand, hoping to at least distract him from the terrible weight of his sins.
Arashi buried her head in her knees as she hugged her legs close. The hard sensation of alloy thighs on her cheeks was hardly comfortable, but the illusion of being cut off the rest of the world calmed her down.
The rough texture of the tatami rubbing against her buttocks and the flimsy apartment wall pressing against her lower back reminded her where she was. Light from street lamps trickled through the curtains of the small room. Except for a low dining table and a messed up futon, no other furniture could be seen, making the small space seem larger than it was.
Sounds came from the tiny kitchen hidden by a paper divider across the room. Although her eyes were closed, Arashi could tell what her host was doing just from the clattering. She was quite familiar with the sound of cooking due to a certain young man, after all. Shaking her head, Arashi forcefully banished the image of the former chef from her mind.
“Dinner’s almost ready. It’s not much, but it’ll fill our bellies.”
The woman’s Japanese carried a very obtrusive American accent, but the words were sufficiently comprehensible.
“Go sit at the table, Arashi.”
Hearing her name, she reflexively raised her head. A red ball of spiky hair popped out from behind the room divider.
“I’m bringing it out now. Just grabbing some chopsticks.”
Despite the prodding, Arashi did not budge. She merely kept rolling and unrolling her thoughts inside her head, blinking lethargically as if watching snow fall in slow motion.
Her host had found her wandering the streets after fleeing from Kaika and the others. The red-maned young woman had introduced herself as Noelle Truman, a friend of Arashi’s father. Normally, Arashi would be wary of such an unlikely coincidence, but her doubts had vanished when Noelle showed her a picture of them together, with her father beside them. Photos could be easily faked, but Arashi’s hazy memory brought to life by the image could not. She had remembered Noelle, a kind, cheerful lady who doted on her whenever they met.
Having nowhere else to go, Arashi had taken Noelle’s invitation to stay at her apartment. Since then, the redhead had been taking care of her, wanting nothing in exchange. In the past two weeks, Arashi had slowly opened up to Noelle and told her the gist of her life until now, including the circumstances behind her current predicament.
Noelle marched to the table with a tray of food, or at least something she called food. She placed a small pot filled with instant ramen, fish cake, and unevenly cut vegetables in the middle of the table and then put down two empty bowls, topping them with disposable wooden chopsticks wrapped in paper. Two peeled hard boiled eggs gently rolled around a small plate she parked beside the pot.
Spoiled by Ageha’s cooking and her own culinary adventures, Arashi considered the pathetic spread as almost inedible. She inwardly chuckled at herself due to how much she had changed in such a short time, all thanks to Kaika, Ageha, and Saya. A wince tugged at her face upon recalling how they had deceived her into helping kill her only real friend.
Despite that, Arashi’s stomach growled just from smelling the food. That was only natural. She had skipped her last meal, and the one before that. In fact, she did not even remember the last time she put anything solid in her stomach. Memories of her blankly slurping noodles or congee in the past week flashed in her head, but they were few and far between. Her mouth salivated by reflex, but she did not have the will to move to the table. The growling would eventually disappear if she waited long enough. That held true during her many years with her unhinged father.
“Again? Do you really have to starve yourself an inch from death before eating anything?”
Instead of replying, Arashi merely dug her face into her knees again.
“Well, I have some news for you today. I did some digging around to confirm some information I got from my CO. I hit the jackpot today.”
Arashi took no interest in the news. It was more trivial to her than soggy instant ramen with undercooked vegetables.
“It’s about your mother.”
Arashi’s body instantly tensed up as she directed her gaze at Noelle.
“…What about my mother?”
“I’ll tell you if you eat.”
Without a second of consideration, Arashi scuttled to the table, poured several ladles of noodles into her empty bowl, and scarfed it down. Her tongue burned from the scalding, MSG-laden broth, but she did not care. After learning of her team’s deception, her mother was the only person Arashi could trust. She had tried contacting her mother a few times in the past two weeks to no avail, but that was not uncommon. Her mother was a very busy woman.
From the corner of her eye, Arashi noticed Noelle smiling gently while watching her eat. It was a tender smile, similar to what her mother showered her with as a child.
Arashi slammed the empty bowl onto the table. “Tell me.”
“Of course.” Noelle placed her chopsticks horizontally on top of her practically untouched bowl of noodles. “Your mother is dead.”
“Wha… What do you mean!? What happened!?” Arashi reached over the table and grabbed Noelle’s collar.
“Let me finish.” Noelle gently grasped Arashi’s hands, rubbing them until they relaxed. “To be more accurate, she died many years ago. The woman you call your mother right now is just an actress Kaika Nikaido hired to trick you into becoming her soldier.”
“No way… No way..! No way!!!” Arashi violently shook her head. “That’s impossible! I saw her face! She is my mother!”
“There were records of that actress retiring from theater and undergoing plastic surgery roughly a year ago.” Noelle placed her mobile terminal on the table and flipped through several images and documents.
Arashi snatched the mobile and read through the files, her expression growing more grim by the second.
“This is the truth Arashi. You’ve been completely deceived by Nikaido.”
“No! Even if Kaika can do something like this, there’s no way Ageha or Saya would let her! They wouldn’t do this to me!”
“Can you really say that with confidence? You were the one who told me how they tricked you into killing your friend.”
Arashi’s jaw locked in place, slightly ajar. She could not offer any rebuttal. However, her mind still refused to believe the people who had given her a home, who she considered family, could do something so heinous to her. As such, her body did the most logical thing. Before she or Noelle knew it, she had already bolted to the door.
“Arashi! Where are you going!?”
Borrowing Saya’s shoulder, Ageha rushed to the lobby upon hearing about Arashi’s return from a maid. They bumped into Kaika, who was also hurrying downstairs, near the staircase entrance. Waiting for them by the mansion’s main doors was a disheveled teen with sunken cheeks and bags under her eyes, a completely different person from a mere two weeks ago.
“Arashi, where have you been!?” asked Saya, her voice tinged with impatience.
Arashi let her eyes rest on her foster sister for a moment before directing a glare at her mistress. Kaika flinched, as if Arashi’s gaze singed her with an invisible heat. Not one to back down, Kaika puffed her chest out and whipped out an index finger towards Arashi.
“What’s with that rebellious expression? Have you forgotten who your mistress is?”
Arashi shook her head. “I owe you many things, Kai. You gave me a place to belong, and gave me a life I couldn’t even dream of before we met.”
Kaika visibly gulped, unsure what Arashi’s unusually determined tone meant. “I-I see.” She stepped forward, leaving Ageha, Saya, and her stern expression behind. “Can you tell me what you’ve been up to?”
“That’s not important right now.”
“…Right. I still owe you an apology.” Kaika immediately shifted her pompous posture to a meek formal one, likely emulating Saya. She gracefully but deeply lowered her head, a sight rarer than a solar eclipse. “I’m sorry for keeping information from you during the last operation. But please believe me when I say we never intended to harm Mitsuki. That was… a tragic accident.”
Ageha stood right beside Saya, unable to do or say anything. His tongue atrophied within his mouth, unable to shake off the shackles of guilt and chains of powerlessness. That allowed him to focus his attention on the smallest details about Arashi.
It was not only her appearance that had changed. The stiff way she carried herself, the fire in her eyes, the disdain in her voice, all of them were uncharacteristic of the lackadaisical girl he knew. The world he knew and loved creaked underneath his feet. His unsteady legs trembled at the thought of what that tremor foretold.
Arashi stared intently at Kaika’s bowed head, as if counting her hair follicles. “Then answer this. Is my mother really dead?”
Like a seasoned thespian, Kaika did not flounder despite being confronted by the shocking question. She quickly straightened her body in feigned surprise. “What are you talking about?”
If Ageha did not know the truth, he would have completely believed her performance. Unsurprisingly, Arashi’s stiff expression loosened up a little.
“I got information from someone I trust that my mother died a long time ago. That the woman I met recently… is just an actress you hired.”
Cupping her forehead with a hand, Kaika shook her head in exasperation. “What kind of conspiracy theory is that? You realize how ridiculous that sounds, right? You met her face to face, even heard her voice.”
“You made her take plastic surgery. The voice… I don’t remember my mother’s voice very well, so maybe… I couldn’t tell.”
Ageha could tell Arashi’s resolve was faltering. Maybe a part of her did not want to lose their special place, just like him.
“Absurd.” Kaika audibly snorted. “Think about it. What would I gain by doing that?”
“T-To… gain my trust…”
“You were already under my command back then. Have you forgotten? You wanted to keep fighting for me even after losing your eyes. That was before I told you that I found your mother. And yes, she is the real one.”
Arashi’s momentum sputtered to a stop. She broke eye contact with Kaika and held her elbow, as if to brace her wavering self. Ageha watched the scene unfold, unable to do a thing.
Kai is gonna win her over.
With sweet, seductive lies.
With cold, methodical manipulation.
And I will be here.
Letting it happen.
The weight of his sins bore down on him. His vision narrowed and darkened, the spacious Nikaido mansion lobby collapsing into a claustrophobic tunnel devoid of sunlight.
Then, without warning, his paralyzed tongue began weaving words no one expected.
“It was me.”
Both Kaika and Arashi turned to look at him with puzzled expressions. He put on a bitter smile and vomited everything out.
“Kai is lying to you right now to protect me.”
“What nonsense are you-”
“It’s okay, Kai. Arashi deserves to know.” Ageha took a deep breath before continuing. “A while back, as a condition for me to work for her again, I asked Kai to do everything to make that actress into your mother. Money, forged documents, surgery, the works.”
Arashi’s eyes snapped wide open, her irises shaking unsteadily. “W-Wha… W-Why?”
“Does the reason matter? It won’t change the fact that I did it.”
There were a number of logical reasons for Ageha to take this route, which was why Kaika let him continue. For example, fooling Arashi again would only serve as a stopgap. With access to a different source of information, it was only a matter of time before Arashi reached the truth. The more lies Kaika lay on top of her original deceit, the less likely it was for Arashi to forgive her. Another possible reason was to shift the blame from Kaika, the employer, to Ageha, the lover, who was more likely to be forgiven, thus keeping their fragile pseudo-family intact.
However, none of that mattered to Ageha.
He just wanted to lay down the yoke of guilt.
“I was also the one who proposed keeping Mitsuki’s involvement in the last operation a secret.”
To shatter the chains choking him.
“I didn’t want to distract you. Kai and Saya agreed, but it was ultimately me who pushed the idea.”
“And I killed Mitsuki, as you know.”
And the deceit born from truth.
“But that was because you wanted to pro-”
Ageha shook his head, stopping Saya from defending him.
He had thrown the knife at Mitsuki to save Arashi. That was fact. Yet it was very likely that Arashi did not know that, being preoccupied with fighting the iron giant during the operation. For all he knew, Arashi might think they had plotted to kill Mitsuki all along. But that was fine. Ageha could fool himself into thinking that he lied to prevent Arashi from feeling responsible for Mitsuki’s death, but that could not be farther from the truth.
He did it because it felt good.
With each confession, Ageha felt the crushing weight on his shoulders fall, dull thuds soothing his crumpled soul as the titanic fragments of sin crashed to the ground around him.
Little by little, he swam towards the surface in search for air. He desperately sought punishment, but even his devil of a mistress held back, ironically, for his sake. Then who else could punish him but himself? Arashi was merely a tool in the process.
I really am a monster.
A disgusting, pathetic, weak creature.
But he could not help it. He was too battered, enough to seek help from someone more beat up than he was.
Tears rolled down Arashi’s cheeks and fell to the lavish lobby carpet. The look on her face reflected her despair and confusion, yet there was no hatred in her eyes. As young and inexperienced as Arashi was, she probably understood, or at least hoped, Ageha had reasons for his actions. But that did not change the fact that those actions had deeply hurt her.
“Is… Is that… Is all of that true, Kai?”
Taking advantage of the situation Ageha created, Kaika nodded without missing a beat. “Yes. I’m sorry for trying to pull the wool over your eyes just now. Your real mother died many years ago from a drug overdose, and it was indeed Ageha who came up with the idea of making an actress your full time mother. Even though Saya and I agreed, he gave the best argument for keeping Mitsuki’s involvement in the last mission a secret from you. Mitsuki died due to his failed knife throw. All of that is true. But I want you to know that he did all that-”
“Stop it, Kai,” said Ageha. “No excuses.”
Kaika frowned while biting her lip. Ageha would not allow her to get in the way of his emancipation. However, only he knew the pitiful reason for his confessions. Kaika and Saya probably thought he was trying to prevent Arashi from blaming herself. They always had a tendency to see his actions in a heroic tint. The current situation roused shame within him, but it was no match for his desire to be freed from guilt.
Arashi brushed away her tears with her forearms. “I… I understand. I need some time to think about all this. I… will return in a few days… with a decision.”
“I see,” said Kaika. “I… We will be waiting.”
Like a soldier, Arashi sharply turned on her heels and marched to the front door. As she held the door handle, she looked at Ageha, who was busy ruminating his actions, over her shoulder.
I wonder how Kai and Saya would feel if they knew the real reason?
Would they be exasperated at my childishness?
Scorn my selfishness?
“I’m so disappointed, Ageha.”
And thus, the final string of guilt wringing Ageha’s neck was cut.
He could finally breathe again.
As Arashi disappeared from view, he hungrily filled his unshackled lungs, expecting long-missed relief.
But the copious amount of dank, tepid air he devoured just reminded him how vast the emptiness within him was.